The new Brexit deal is the best Britain can expect. Support it
Both the Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party should get behind the new agreement with the EU
Brexit was always going to be problematic for Northern Ireland, since it has the uk’s only land border with the EU. All sides agreed that bringing back a hard north-south border with customs controls risked upsetting the peace process that culminated in the Good Friday agreement of 1998. Yet if Britain left the EU’s single market and customs union, there had to be a border somewhere.
Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal opted to take Great Britain out of the single market and customs union but in effect to leave Northern Ireland in both. That necessitated an east-west border in the Irish Sea, even if Mr Johnson pretended otherwise. When controls were duly imposed, he was quick to disavow his deal. He later brought in a parliamentary bill to allow the government to tear up parts of the treaty protocol that created the border.
It has fallen to Mr Johnson’s successor-but-one, Rishi Sunak, to clear up this mess. He and the eu have been sensibly pragmatic. The “Windsor framework” agreed this week with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president, simplifies the border controls required by the protocol. A system of “green” lanes and trusted traders will minimise checks on goods not likely to move into the eu single market, helped by granting eu officials access to real-time trade data. And a consultative mechanism will give an emergency brake on applying future single-market rule changes in Northern Ireland.
Because the deal eliminates unnecessary checks, it will be welcomed by many businesses and ordinary voters in the province. Yet Brexit ideologues in the Conservative Party, along with the Democratic Unionist Party (dup), are unhappy because Mr Sunak has not secured any changes to the protocol’s treaty text and has conceded that the European Court of Justice, the ultimate arbiter of single-market rules, will retain some jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. He will also drop the bill to rip up the protocol.
Both groups of opponents should reconsider. Hardline Tory MPs who are against Mr Sunak’s deal have not offered a serious alternative. Sticking with the status quo is unsatisfactory as it seriously disrupts trade and could trigger renewed litigation. Persisting with the bill to allow unilateral repudiation of the protocol would break international law and further envenom already poisonous relations with the EU. Renewed in-fighting over Brexit would severely damage Mr Sunak’s government, denting the Tories’ already poor electoral chances.
It is harder to satisfy the dup, for it is correct to complain that the protocol erects barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the uk. That gave the dup the excuse it needed to boycott Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive. Yet it is worth remembering that Brexit, which the dup backed, was rejected by a majority in Northern Ireland. Most voters similarly support a better-functioning protocol that could give Northern Ireland unfettered access to both the eu and uk markets. Mr Sunak’s deal may not give the dup everything it wants. And it could be improved by a future Labour government: the party has promised to secure a veterinary agreement with the eu that would further reduce sensitive checks on food. But if the dup rejects the deal, it is not going to be offered a better one. So it ought to accept it as the best now available. That could also clear the way for its eventual return to the power-sharing executive, which is badly needed in Northern Ireland.
A fresh start internationally
There are broader geopolitical reasons to welcome the Windsor framework. It paves the way for much improved UK-EU relations. It would allow Britain to become an associate member of the EU’s Horizon research programme. It should bolster security and foreign-policy co-operation, something that matters more since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Better relations with France could boost bilateral co-operation to deter migrants crossing the channel in small boats. And the deal would do much to repair Britain’s relations with America, whose president cares deeply about peace in Northern Ireland. When MPs vote on the deal, they should support it.